A lot of attention is given to one of the big problems with renewable energy source: intermittency, which refers to the fact that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. It’s hard to run a civilisation on a power grid that works only some of the time.
But there’s another concern with clean energy that should give us pause, especially in a difficult economy like the one we’re in right now … and that’s the fact that renewables (we’re including nuclear here as well) remain prohibitively expensive compared to our old, dirty and carbon spewing energy friends like coal.
Consider the new report from the engineering consultancy Parsons Brinckerhoff, which this week noted that the UK’s plan for offshore wind energy is potentially two to three times more costly than nuclear power (which itself is no bargain). And this from a company that supports offshore wind! (Onshore wind development, the report pointed out, is cost-competitive with gas, but frequently falls victim to NIMBYism … the “not in my backyard” objection.)
So nuclear’s the way to go then, right? Not without governments with very deep pockets (we’re looking at you, taxpayers). As energy analyst Richard W. Caperton points out in a new memo, “Building a nuclear reactor today will involve dealing with tremendous financial uncertainty.” In Canada, for example, the Ontario government last year ditched plans for new nuclear power after receiving just one compliant bid … for $26 billion, more than 3 1/2 times greater than earlier estimates. The US experienced similar sticker shock for a proposed two-reactor plant in Texas, where cost projections have risen from $5.4 billion to $18.2 billion.
Worse yet, even with hefty, government-backed loan guarantees, few developers are jumping in to build new reactors. In the US, despite a tripling of available funds, only four candidates have come forward with proposals for new nuclear plants, and they’re an ugly field featuring “rising cost estimates, delays, flawed reactor designs and credit downgrades,” according to clean energy experts.
All right then, so let’s forget new nukes and encourage microgeneration, turning every home into its own little power station. That’s essentially what the British government hopes to do when it rolls out its new feed-in tariffs for small wind turbines and rooftop solar panels on 1 April. The scheme will pay homeowners a premium for the renewable energy they generate and feed back into the grid.
Sounds nice, but — again — there’s a price. As columnist George Monbiot points out in the Guardian, the amount of money the UK government has set aside for such homegrown clean energy equates to a cost of £430 per tonne of carbon saved. That’s one stiff pricetag.
But, wait. Aren’t we close to achieving the ultimate in clean energy technology: nuclear fusion? Yes, we’ve made some stunning advances in the lab of late, at a cost so far of £2.1 billion for the US’ National Ignition Facility and £9 billion for the ITER fusion reactor being built in France. But bringing fusion energy up to scale in a timely and commercially viable manner is an entirely different nut to crack.
As Steve Cowley, director of the fusion programme at the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority said to the BBC, “The principles are right, but there’s a lot of difference between principles and practice and that’s where we have to do our work.”
In other words, we’re not there yet.
However you look at it, it appears likely we’re going to have to spend a LOT more for energy in years to come, whether it’s increasingly difficult-to-drill planet-heating petroleum, tricky-to-complete nuclear power or intermittent sun and wind. What does that mean for industrial, globalised society as we know it? We’ll probably start finding that out in the coming decade, won’t we?